Prior to attending Wesley Girls' High School in Cape Coast, I had virtually no idea about what "African literature" was. If you meant the stories submitted by readers to The Mirror, a Saturday weekly in Ghana, then maybe. But if you meant stories that capture the sometimes mundane details of daily life in an African country, complete with the kola nuts, local proverbs, and complexities of traditional and contemporary African life, then not really.
Then came Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Efua Sutherland's The Marriage of Anansewa - and a whole new world was opened up to me. I can't recount the number of times I read Things Fall Apart, it was just that good. Achebe's descriptions of Okonkwo, Unoka and Obierika - some of the main characters - were all too real and inviting. Each character taught something unique and valuable. And let's not forget the somewhat scary, yet hilariously absurd descriptions:
"I am Evil Forest, I am Dry-meat-that-fills-the-moth, I am Fire-that-burns-without-faggots". I mean.
"Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone." - Unoka to Okonkwo
"But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed." - Narrator
And then there were the proverbs, how can one forget the proverbs:
"Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten."
"Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings."
"The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did."
"When mother-cow is chewing grass its young ones watch its mouth."
"If you don't like someone's story, write your own."
"I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, this is it."
“It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.”
But that's not all. Achebe's influence extends beyond the literary world. I sent out a tweet asking people when they first encountered Achebe and through which book, and one of my tweeps responded that he read Things Fall Apart at 11 years to impress his father. And his father was impressed, because "at least I was graduating from the Adventures of Tintin to an African writer." The second time around - when he was much older and able to absorb the many themes presented in the book - he got the book's message. Achebe helped forge relationships and lifelong memories.
Nigeria and Africa have indeed lost a great man. But being the great influencer he was, his legacy, work and words live on. Professor Achebe, may you rest in perfect peace.
"Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.” ― Chinua Achebe